November 23, 2015

One Sunday, having attended the Saturday evening Mass in my parish, I set out to worship in a non-Catholic church on Sunday morning. The topic of the day was Jesus' baptism, and I was surprised upon hearing the preacher say that Jesus became God at his baptism.

"Adoptionism!" I thought to myself. An early Church heresy which assumed that Jesus was human, but not divine, until the Holy Spirit came upon him.

Jesus' baptism was not like ours. He was baptized by John the Baptist "to fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3.15); we are baptized to share in Christ's death and resurrection (Romans 6.3-4). There was no sacrament of Baptism until blood and water poured out of the side of Christ's body as he lay dead on the cross (John 19.34).

Yet, one can see how people become easily confused. The Holy Spirit did descend on Jesus at the Jordan; one might think that at his baptism Jesus was changed from one type of being into another.

Indeed, there was a change - Jesus moved from living his own life into a public ministry that would take him eventually to Calvary. But he was not changed from human into God; he had always been both God and human from the moment of his conception.

Change was afoot in those times. John the Baptist drew large crowds to his abode in the desert where he baptized many with a baptism of repentance.

The Baptist was no ordinary religious teacher, and his baptism was no ordinary religious ritual with but a temporary effect.

For centuries, the people had been without a prophet. They wondered if the Lord had forgotten them. Suddenly this new Elijah appeared in the desert challenging people to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan and to rise from those cleansing waters with a new direction in life.

John the Baptist promised the imminent arrival of the long-awaited messiah. The messiah's "winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear the threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3.12). All of Judah must have been filled with an air of expectation.

Moreover, the repentance the Baptist urged upon the people was irreversible. His baptism could not be repeated because it represented a new life.

Jesus' baptism is depicted in the church of Our Lady across the Dijle in Mechelen, Belgium.

Jesus' baptism is depicted in the church of Our Lady across the Dijle in Mechelen, Belgium.

Jesus, some maintain, may have been a disciple of the Baptist. St. Matthew presents the core of their teaching as identical. John the Baptist: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (3.2). Jesus: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (4.17). Other similarities exist.


Yet, there are two important differences. The Baptist saw himself as the forerunner, Jesus as the lamb of God. Second, the Baptist called people to his ministry in the desert; Jesus met the people where they were.

St. Mark says Jesus came to be baptized from his home in Nazareth of Galilee. Galilee was not just "Hicksville," but a suspicious region, an area close to where there had been a peasant uprising a few years earlier.

For Mark, the centre and the periphery were in constant tension, and Jesus stood on the margins. His alignment with the Baptist disengaged him from the old Israel and its system of religious power.

Now comes the baptism out in the desert, far from the Temple and its ordered institutional existence, an existence that included submission to the Roman occupying forces.

"Just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased'" (Mark 1.10-11).

An apocalyptic scene if there ever was one. It was not, however, an apocalypse of weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, but one of a new creation. Not only is there the "voice from heaven," but also the Spirit in the form of a dove, a figure that recalls the receding of the waters after the Great Flood.

The fathers of the Church noticed the dove and called Jesus the New Noah.


St. John Chrysostom gave detail to that image when he wrote, "In this case the dove also appeared, not bearing an olive branch, but pointing to our Deliverer from all evils, bringing hope filled with grace. For this dove does not simply lead one family out of an ark, but the whole world toward heaven at her appearing."

Jesus liberates God's people from the closed, stale confines of the ark into the fresh air and sunshine of a new creation.

When Jesus, in Matthew's Gospel, says he accepts John's baptism to "fulfill all righteousness," he is not simply showing us an example so that we too will get baptized. Rather, he acts in total solidarity with humanity and with the Father.

Solidarity with humanity in that, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote, he "blends into the grey mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan." Solidarity with sinners who yearn for righteousness.

Solidarity also with the Father's will, a will that represents, not a repression of what is most fully human, but rather the fullness of what God created us to be.

Solidarity is the keynote of Jesus' baptism. His is a mission, not of holy separation from the masses, but of going into their midst, of liberating them, not from above, but from within.

That solidarity started something. It meant that after Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension, the Holy Spirit did not depart with him. Jesus breathed the Spirit onto the apostles, and they onto us. The Spirit continues to make Jesus real in our midst; the Spirit continues to renew the face of the earth.

A story begins at the Jordan, a story of Jesus and the Spirit which continues unbroken to this day and eternally into the future.